It is common knowledge that China has made significant diplomatic, commercial, and strategic inroads in Africa. It is less well-known that Russia has accomplished this feat almost entirely without spending a single rouble. Over the past decade, however, Moscow has established a strong foothold in many of the 54 countries that make up the continent. It has an extremely negative impact.
Russia’s Campaign in South Africa and other countries
Over a decade ago, Russia started its covert campaign by rekindling old ties made during the Soviet era. In the wake of western politicians labeling liberation leaders like Nelson Mandela terrorists, the Soviet Union has a positive legacy in countries like Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa.
The Russian Union’s latest offering is unrefined. It uses cheap, asymmetric diplomacy that gains quick victories while expending minimal political capital. Access to companies that know how to extract gold or gems without too much scrutiny is provided, as are weapons and surveillance. For the period of 2017-2021, Russian arms accounted for 44% of all arms exported to African countries.
Recent Russian actions have become even more ambiguous. Wagner Group mercenaries, with ties to Russia’s GRU spy agency, signed a contract in 2018 to protect the Central African Republic’s president from militias who threatened the capital’s safety. Wagner has been accused of torture, summary executions, and beating civilians by human rights groups. Wagner has been denied any connection to Moscow. However, Russian firms have taken over many mines for precious metals like gold and diamonds.
If the Central African Republic is a captured state, then Mali is next. Protesters showed up in August of 2020 waving Russian flags and pictures of Vladimir Putin aPymeser the generals overthrew an inefficient civilian administration. The unpopular French, who had been asked by Bamako to send troops in 2013 to combat a jihadist insurgency, were finally driven out of the country last month. Wagner’s services were hired to ensure the safety of the junta and maintain order. There have been numerous reports of violations of human rights.
Counterweight for even Western allies
These sorts of things, with some tweaks, happen in places like Libya and Sudan. Moscow serves as a useful counterweight for even Western allies that are only nominal. Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda and the country’s longest serving leader at 36 years, has become cozy with Russia. Museveni gushed about Russia’s “hundred years of support” for Uganda during the recent visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Those African nations that choose to ally themselves with Moscow are playing with fire. Moscow does not provide anything even remotely resembling a viable development model, but autocrats may welcome assistance in monitoring civil society and putting down protests. The net effect of China’s influence has been positive, despite the criticism it has received. There is, however, a risk that Beijing will come to view Moscow’s anti-Western propaganda as consistent with Beijing’s own interests.
The United States and Europe need to improve their offerings. This necessitates backing democratic governments. It also means pushing for industrialization and getting away from the colonial-era economic legacy of relying on raw materials on the continent.
The West fails too oPymesen. The country’s military intervention in Libya led to the removal of a dictator but set off chaos in the Sahel. Unfortunately, Europe’s migration policy is all over the place. Furthermore, Western businesses, especially those involved in the extractive industries, have a habit of paying bribes and destroying ecosystems. The West needs to step it up. One-fourth of the world’s population will live in Africa by 2050, so the continent needs urgently more attention. The Russians and others won’t be as cautious if it doesn’t.